|By David Skok||
|January 19, 2013 09:00 AM EST||
“If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it” – Lord Kelvin
This article is a comprehensive and detailed look at the key metrics that are needed to understand and optimize a SaaS business. It is a completely updated rewrite of an older post. For this version, I have co-opted two real experts in the field: Ron Gill, (CFO, NetSuite), and Brad Coffey (VP of Strategy, HubSpot), to add expertise, color and commentary from the viewpoint of a public and private SaaS company. My sincere thanks to both of them for their time and input.
SaaS/subscription businesses are more complex than traditional businesses. Traditional business metrics totally fail to capture the key factors that drive SaaS performance. In the SaaS world, there are a few key variables that make a big difference to future results. This post is aimed at helping SaaS executives understand which variables really matter, and how to measure them and act on the results.
The goal of the article is to help you answer the following questions:
- Is my business financially viable?
- What is working well, and what needs to be improved?
- What levers should management focus on to drive the business?
- Should the CEO hit the accelerator, or the brakes?
- What is the impact on cash and profit/loss of hitting the accelerator?
(Note: although I focus on SaaS specifically, the article is applicable to any subscription business.)
What's so different about SaaS?
SaaS, and other recurring revenue businesses are different because the revenue for the service comes over an extended period of time (the customer lifetime). If a customer is happy with the service, they will stick around for a long time, and the profit that can be made from that customer will increase considerably. On the other hand if a customer is unhappy, they will churn quickly, and the business will likely lose money on the investment that they made to acquire that customer. This creates a fundamentally different dynamic to a traditional software business: there are now two sales that have to be accomplished:
- Acquiring the customer
- Keeping the customer (to maximize the lifetime value).
Because of the importance of customer retention, we will see a lot of focus on metrics that help us understand retention and churn. But first let's look at metrics that help you understand if your SaaS business is financially viable.
The SaaS P&L / Cash Flow Trough
SaaS businesses face significant losses in the early years (and often an associated cash flow problem). This is because they have to invest heavily upfront to acquire the customer, but recover the profits from that investment over a long period of time. The faster the business decides to grow, the worse the losses become. Many investors/board members have a problem understanding this, and want to hit the brakes at precisely the moment when they should be hitting the accelerator.
In many SaaS businesses, this also translates into a cash flow problem, as they may only be able to get the customer to pay them month by month. To illustrate the problem, we built a simple Excel model which can be found here. In that model, we are spending $6,000 to acquire the customer, and billing them at the rate of $500 per month. Take a look at these two graphs from that model:
If we experience a cash flow trough for one customer, then what will happen if we start to do really well and acquire many customers at the same time? The model shows that the P&L/cash flow trough gets deeper if we increase the growth rate for the bookings.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel, as eventually there is enough profit/cash from the installed base to cover the investment needed for new customers. At that point the business would turn profitable/cash flow positive - assuming you don't decide to increase spending on sales and marketing. And, as expected, the faster the growth in customer acquisition, the better the curve looks when it becomes positive.
Ron Gill, NetSuite:
If plans go well, you may decide it is time to hit the accelerator (increasing spending on lead generation, hiring additional sales reps, adding data center capacity, etc.) in order to pick-up the pace of customer acquisition. The thing that surprises many investors and boards of directors about the SaaS model is that, even with perfect execution, an acceleration of growth will often be accompanied by a squeeze on profitability and cash flow.
As soon as the product starts to see some significant uptake, investors expect that the losses / cash drain should narrow, right? Instead, this is the perfect time to increase investment in the business. which will cause losses to deepen again. The graph below illustrates the problem:
Notice in the example graph that the five customer per month model ultimately yields a much steeper rate of growth, but you have to go through another deep trough to get there. It is the concept of needing to re-enter that type of trough after just having gotten the curve to turn positive that many managers and investors struggle with.
Of course this a special challenge early-on as you need to explain to investors why you'll require additional cash to fund that next round of acceleration. But it isn't just a startup problem. At NetSuite, even as a public company our revenue growth rate has accelerated in each of the last three years. That means that each annual plan involves a stepping-up of investment in lead generation and sales capacity that will increase spending and cash flow out for some time before it starts yielding incremental revenue and cash flow in. As long as you're accelerating the rate of revenue growth, managing and messaging around this phenomenon is a permanent part of the landscape for any SaaS company.
Why is growth important?
We have suggested that as soon as the business has shown that it can succeed, it should invest aggressively to increase the growth rate. You might ask question: Why?
SaaS is usually a "winner-takes-all" game, and it is therefore important to grab market share as fast as possible to make sure you are the winner in your space. Provided you can tell a story that shows that eventually that growth will lead to profitability, Wall Street, acquiring companies, and venture investors all reward higher growth with higher valuations. There's also a premium for the market leader in a particular space.
However not all investments make sense. In the next section we will look at a tool to help you ensure that your growth initiatives/investments will pay back: Unit Economics.
A Powerful Tool: Unit Economics
Because of the losses in the early days, which get bigger the more successful the company is at acquiring customers, it is much harder for management and investors to figure out whether a SaaS business is financially viable. We need some tools to help us figure this out.
A great way to understand any business model is to answer the following simple question:
Can I make more profit from my customers than it costs me to acquire them?
This is effectively a study of the unit economics of each customer. To answer the question, we need two metrics:
- LTV - the Lifetime Value of a typical customer
- CAC - the Cost to Acquire a typical Customer
(For more on how to calculate LTV and CAC, click here.)
Entrepreneurs are usually overoptimistic about how much it costs to acquire a customer. This probably comes from a belief that customers will be so excited about what they have built, that they will beat a path to their doors to buy the product. The reality is often very different! (I have written more on this topic here: Startup Killer: The Cost of Customer Acquisition, and here: How Sales Complexity impacts CAC.)
Is your SaaS business viable?
In the first version of this article, I introduced two guidelines that could be used to judge quickly whether your SaaS business is viable. The first is a good way to figure out if you will be profitable in the long run, and the second is about measuring the time to profitability (which also greatly impacts capital efficiency).
Over the last two years, I have had the chance to validate these guidelines with many SaaS businesses, and it turns out that these early guesses have held up well. The best SaaS businesses have a LTV to CAC ratio that is higher than 3, sometimes as high as 7 or 8. And many of the best SaaS businesses are able to recover their CAC in 5-7 months. However many healthy SaaS businesses don't meet the guidelines in the early days, but can see how they can improve the business over time to get there.
The second guideline (Months to Recover CAC) is all about time to profitability and cash flow. Larger businesses, such as wireless carriers and credit card companies, can afford to have a longer time to recover CAC, as they have access to tons of cheap capital. Startups, on the other hand, typically find that capital is expensive in the early days. However even if capital is cheap, it turns out that Months to recover CAC is a very good predictor of how well a SaaS business will perform. Take a look at the graph below, which comes from the same model used earlier. It shows how the profitability is anemic if the time to recover CAC extends beyond 12 months.
I should stress that these are only guidelines, there are always situations where it makes sense to break them.
Three uses for the SaaS Guidelines
- One of the key jobs of the CEO is to decide when to hit the accelerator pedal. The value of these two guidelines is that they help you understand when you have a SaaS business that is in good shape, where it makes sense to hit the accelerator pedal. Alternatively if your business doesn't meet the guidelines, it is a good indicator that there is more tweaking needed to fix the business before you should expand.
- Another way to use the two guidelines is for evaluating different lead sources. Different lead sources (e.g. Google AdWords, TV, Radio, etc.) have different costs associated with them. The guidelines help you understand if some of the more expensive lead generation options make financial sense. If they meet these guidelines, it makes sense to hit the accelerator on those sources (assuming you have the cash).Using the second guideline, and working backwards, we can tell that if we are getting paid $500 per month, we can afford to spend up to 12x that amount (i.e. $6,000) on acquiring the customer. If we're spending less than that, you can afford to be more aggressive and spend more in marketing or sales.
- There is another important way to use this type of guideline: segmentation. Early-stage companies are often testing their offering with several different uses/types of customers / pricing models / industry verticals. It is very useful to examine which segments show the quickest return or highest LTV to CAC in order to understand which will be the most profitable to pursue.
Unit Economics in Action: HubSpot Example
HubSpot's unit economics were recently published in an article in Forbes:
You can see from the second row in this table how they have dramatically improved their unit economics (LTV:CAC ratio) over the five quarters shown. The big driver for this was lowering the MRR Churn rate from 3.5% to 1.5%. This drove up the lifetime value of the customer considerably. They were also able to drive up their AVG MRR per customer.
Brad Coffey, HubSpot:
In 2011 and early 2012 we used this chart to guide many of our business decisions at HubSpot. By breaking LTV:CAC down into its components we could examine each metric and understand what levers we could pull to drive overall improvement.
It turned out that the levers we could pull varied by segment. In the SMB market for instance we had the right sales process in place - but had an opportunity to improve LTV by improving the product to lower churn and increasing our average price in the segment. In the VSB (Very Small Business) segment, by contrast, there wasn't as much upside left on the LTV (VSB customers have less money and naturally higher churn) so we focused on lowering CAC by removing friction from our sales process and moving more of our sales to the channel.
Two kinds of SaaS business:
There are two kinds of SaaS business:
- Those with primarily monthly contracts, with some longer term contracts. In this business, the primary focus will be on MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue)
- Those with primarily annual contracts, with some contracts for multiple years. Here the primary focus is on ARR (Annual Recurring Revenue), and ACV (Annual Contract Value).
Most of the time in this article, I will refer to MRR/ACV. This means use MRR if you are the first kind of business, or ACV if you are the second kind of business. The dashboard shown below assumes monthly contracts (MRR). However in the downloadable spreadsheet, there is a tab that shows the same dashboard for the second kind, focusing on ACV instead of MRR.
SaaS Bookings: Three Contributing Elements
Every month in a SaaS business, there are three elements that contribute to how much MRR will change relative to the previous month:
What happened with new customers added in the month:
- New MRR (or ACV)
What happened in the installed base of customers:
- Churned MRR (or ACV) (from existing customers that cancelled their subscription. This will be a negative number.)
- Expansion MRR (or ACV) (from existing customers who expanded their subscription)
The sum all three of these makes up your Net MRR or ACV Bookings:
I recommend that you track these using a chart similar to the one below:
This chart shows the three components of MRR (or ACV) Bookings, and the Net New MRR (or ACV) Bookings. By breaking out each component, you can track the key elements that are driving your business. The one variation we would recommend making to this chart is to show a dotted line for the plan, so you can track how you are doing against plan for each of the four lines. This is one of the most important charts to help you understand and run your business.
Ron Gill, NetSuite:
This chart is really good. I also like to look at this data in tabular form because I want to know y-o-y growth rates. E.g. "Net new MRR is up 25% over June of last year". The Y-o-Y % is a metric easily compared with increased spending, sales capacity, etc.
The Importance of Customer Retention (Churn)
In the early days of a SaaS business, churn really doesn't matter that much. Let's say that you lose 3% of your customers every month. When you only have a hundred customers, losing 3 of them is not that terrible. You can easily go and find another 3 to replace them. However as your business grows in size, the problem becomes different. Imagine that you have become really big, and now have a million customers. 3% churn means that you are losing 30,000 customers every month! That turns out to be a much harder number to replace. Companies like Constant Contact have run into this problem, and it has made it very hard for them to keep up their growth rate.
Ron Gill, NetSuite:
One oft-overlooked aspect of churn is that the churn rate, combined with the rate of new ARR adds, not only defines how fast you can grow the business, it also defines the maximum size the business can reach (see graph below).
It is an enlightening exercise to build a simple model like this for your business and plot where your current revenue run rate sits on the blue line defined by your present rate of ARR adds and churn. Are you near the left-hand side, where the growth is still steep and the ceiling is still far above? Or, are you further to the right where revenue growth will level off and there is limited room left to grow? How much benefit will you get from small improvements in churn or the pace of new business sign-up?
At NetSuite, we've had great success shifting the line in the last few years by both dramatically decreasing churn and by increasing average deal size and volume, thus increasing ARR adds. The result was both to steadily move the limit upward and to steepen the growth curve at the current ARR run rate, creating room for increasingly rapid expansion.
The Power of Negative Churn
The ultimate solution to the churn problem is to get to Negative Churn.
There are two ways to get this expansion revenue:
- Use a pricing scheme that has a variable axis, such as the number of seats used, the number of leads tracked, etc. That way, as your customers expand their usage of your product, they pay you more.
- Upsell/Cross-sell them to more powerful versions of your product, or additional modules.
To help illustrate the power of negative churn, take a look at the following two graphs that show how cohorts behave with 3% churn, and then with 3% negative churn. (Since this is the first time I have used the word Cohort, let me explain what it means. A cohort is simply a fancy word for a group of customers. In the SaaS world, it is used typically to describe the group that joined in a particular month. So there would be the January cohort, February cohort, etc. In our graphs below, a different color is used for each month's cohort, so we can see how they decline or grow, based on the churn rate.)
In the top graph, we are losing 3% of our revenue every month, and you can see that with a constant bookings rate of $6k per month, the revenue reaches $140k after 40 months, and growth is flattening out. In the bottom graph, we may be losing some customers, but the remaining customers are more than making up for that with increased revenue. With a negative churn rate of 3%, we reach $450k in revenue (more then 3x greater), and the growth in revenues is increasing, not flattening.
For more on this topic, you may wish to refer to these two blog posts of mine:
- Why Churn is SO critical to success in SaaS
- Multi-axis Pricing: a key tool for increasing SaaS revenue
“DevOps is really about the business. The business is under pressure today, competitively in the marketplace to respond to the expectations of the customer. The business is driving IT and the problem is that IT isn't responding fast enough," explained Mark Levy, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Serena Software, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at DevOps Summit, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 18, 2014 08:00 PM EST Reads: 1,092
DevOps Summit 2015 New York, co-located with the 16th International Cloud Expo - to be held June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY - announces that it is now accepting Keynote Proposals. The widespread success of cloud computing is driving the DevOps revolution in enterprise IT. Now as never before, development teams must communicate and collaborate in a dynamic, 24/7/365 environment. There is no time to wait for long development cycles that produce software that is obsolete...
Dec. 18, 2014 07:45 PM EST Reads: 802
“We help people build clusters, in the classical sense of the cluster. We help people put a full stack on top of every single one of those machines. We do the full bare metal install," explained Greg Bruno, Vice President of Engineering and co-founder of StackIQ, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 15th Cloud Expo, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 18, 2014 02:30 PM EST Reads: 785
The cloud is becoming the de-facto way for enterprises to leverage common infrastructure while innovating and one of the biggest obstacles facing public cloud computing is security. In his session at 15th Cloud Expo, Jeff Aliber, a global marketing executive at Verizon, discussed how the best place for web security is in the cloud. Benefits include: Functions as the first layer of defense Easy operation –CNAME change Implement an integrated solution Best architecture for addressing network-l...
Dec. 18, 2014 02:00 PM EST Reads: 842
Mobile commerce traffic is surpassing desktop, yet less than 20% of sales in the U.S. are mobile commerce sales. In his session at 15th Cloud Expo, Dan Franklin, Segment Manager, Commerce, at Verizon Digital Media Services, defined mobile devices and discussed how next generation means simplification. It means taking your digital content and turning it into instantly gratifying experiences.
Dec. 18, 2014 12:00 PM EST Reads: 994
“In the past year we've seen a lot of stabilization of WebRTC. You can now use it in production with a far greater degree of certainty. A lot of the real developments in the past year have been in things like the data channel, which will enable a whole new type of application," explained Peter Dunkley, Technical Director at Acision, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 18, 2014 11:30 AM EST Reads: 860
SYS-CON Events announced today that Windstream, a leading provider of advanced network and cloud communications, has been named “Silver Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 9–11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York, NY. Windstream (Nasdaq: WIN), a FORTUNE 500 and S&P 500 company, is a leading provider of advanced network communications, including cloud computing and managed services, to businesses nationwide. The company also offers broadband, p...
Dec. 18, 2014 11:00 AM EST Reads: 2,100
Verizon Enterprise Solutions is simplifying the cloud-purchasing experience for its clients, with the launch of Verizon Cloud Marketplace, a key foundational component of the company's robust ecosystem of enterprise-class technologies. The online storefront will initially feature pre-built cloud-based services from AppDynamics, Hitachi Data Systems, Juniper Networks, PfSense and Tervela. Available globally to enterprises using Verizon Cloud, Verizon Cloud Marketplace provides a one-stop shop fo...
Dec. 18, 2014 10:30 AM EST Reads: 1,785
Leysin American School is an exclusive, private boarding school located in Leysin, Switzerland. Leysin selected an OpenStack-powered, private cloud as a service to manage multiple applications and provide development environments for students across the institution. Seeking to meet rigid data sovereignty and data integrity requirements while offering flexible, on-demand cloud resources to users, Leysin identified OpenStack as the clear choice to round out the school's cloud strategy. Additional...
Dec. 18, 2014 10:30 AM EST Reads: 1,830
The major cloud platforms defy a simple, side-by-side analysis. Each of the major IaaS public-cloud platforms offers their own unique strengths and functionality. Options for on-site private cloud are diverse as well, and must be designed and deployed while taking existing legacy architecture and infrastructure into account. Then the reality is that most enterprises are embarking on a hybrid cloud strategy and programs. In this Power Panel at 15th Cloud Expo (http://www.CloudComputingExpo.com...
Dec. 18, 2014 10:30 AM EST Reads: 2,232
The Internet of Things is not new. Historically, smart businesses have used its basic concept of leveraging data to drive better decision making and have capitalized on those insights to realize additional revenue opportunities. So, what has changed to make the Internet of Things one of the hottest topics in tech? In his session at @ThingsExpo, Chris Gray, Director, Embedded and Internet of Things, discussed the underlying factors that are driving the economics of intelligent systems. Discover ...
Dec. 18, 2014 10:15 AM EST Reads: 2,062
"BSQUARE is in the business of selling software solutions for smart connected devices. It's obvious that IoT has moved from being a technology to being a fundamental part of business, and in the last 18 months people have said let's figure out how to do it and let's put some focus on it, " explained Dave Wagstaff, VP & Chief Architect, at BSQUARE Corporation, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held Nov 4-6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 18, 2014 10:00 AM EST Reads: 1,757
The move in recent years to cloud computing services and architectures has added significant pace to the application development and deployment environment. When enterprise IT can spin up large computing instances in just minutes, developers can also design and deploy in small time frames that were unimaginable a few years ago. The consequent move toward lean, agile, and fast development leads to the need for the development and operations sides to work very closely together. Thus, DevOps become...
Dec. 18, 2014 10:00 AM EST Reads: 1,874
"Our premise is Docker is not enough. That's not a bad thing - we actually love Docker. At ActiveState all our products are based on open source technology and Docker is an up-and-coming piece of open source technology," explained Bart Copeland, President & CEO of ActiveState Software, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at DevOps Summit at Cloud Expo®, held Nov 4-6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 18, 2014 10:00 AM EST Reads: 1,822
SYS-CON Events announced today that AIC, a leading provider of OEM/ODM server and storage solutions, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. AIC is a leading provider of both standard OTS, off-the-shelf, and OEM/ODM server and storage solutions. With expert in-house design capabilities, validation, manufacturing and production, AIC's broad selection of products are highly flexible and are conf...
Dec. 18, 2014 09:45 AM EST Reads: 1,712
SYS-CON Events announced today that IDenticard will exhibit at SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. IDenticard™ is the security division of Brady Corp (NYSE: BRC), a $1.5 billion manufacturer of identification products. We have small-company values with the strength and stability of a major corporation. IDenticard offers local sales, support and service to our customers across the United States and Canada...
Dec. 18, 2014 09:30 AM EST Reads: 1,864
“We are a managed services company. We have taken the key aspects of the cloud and the purposed data center and merged the two together and launched the Purposed Cloud about 18–24 months ago," explained Chetan Patwardhan, CEO of Stratogent, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 15th Cloud Expo, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 18, 2014 09:00 AM EST Reads: 1,164
"People are a lot more knowledgeable about APIs now. There are two types of people who work with APIs - IT people who want to use APIs for something internal and the product managers who want to do something outside APIs for people to connect to them," explained Roberto Medrano, Executive Vice President at SOA Software, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at Cloud Expo, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 18, 2014 09:00 AM EST Reads: 1,197
The Internet of Things is a misnomer. That implies that everything is on the Internet, and that simply should not be - especially for things that are blurring the line between medical devices that stimulate like a pacemaker and quantified self-sensors like a pedometer or pulse tracker. The mesh of things that we manage must be segmented into zones of trust for sensing data, transmitting data, receiving command and control administrative changes, and peer-to-peer mesh messaging. In his session a...
Dec. 17, 2014 11:15 PM EST Reads: 1,259